Film review: 'Paradise' revisited

A classic of French cinema is given a fresh and high-tech restoration. It opens this weekend at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 theater in Pasadena.

May 31, 2012|By Andy Klein
  • A scene from "Children of Paradise."
A scene from "Children of Paradise." (Courtesy of the…)

Thanks to digital technology, film — that is, the actual, physical substance — is disappearing faster than, hmm, let's say, adding machines and manual typewriters disappeared in earlier upheavals. Whether or not new technology is also having a negative effect on film, the art form, is a matter for lively debate. But there's no doubt that for both financial and technical reasons, it has proved a boon for classic cinema.

Take, for instance, the case of Marcel Carne's 1945 “Children of Paradise” (“Les Enfants du Paradis”), one of the most beloved and respected French classics, which is opening this week in a significantly restored version, as befits one of the glories of old-fashioned narrative cinema.

In the days before home video, back when herds of repertory theaters roamed the cities and college towns of America, “Children of Paradise” was one of those films that buffs would see every time it came to town for fear that it might be their last chance — and this for a movie that clocks in at more than three hours.


The story is a throwback to the novels of Victor Hugo, a complexly plotted romance set against a historical background during the 1820s and ’30s, with real and invented characters intermingling. It has a theatrical setting, and the title refers to the poorest ticket-buyers sitting up in the highest balconies.

At its center is Garance (Arletty), a beautiful woman with whom all the male principals are in love, in one way or another: the naïve mime Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), whose love is sheer romantic passion; the charmingly shallow actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), whose feelings are more practical; Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a bitter playwright/thief/murderer whose passion is exceeded by his pride and egotism; and the Count de Montray (Louis Salou), a pompous stage-door Johnny who wishes to possess her.

The movie is frequently referred to as the French “Gone with the Wind,” thanks to its blend of history and romance, a woman around whom the action revolves, its epic sweep, and passion as a central plot force. But the story behind the film is just as fascinating.

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